by Jack Nisbet

Revisiting Eastern Washington's 1872 Earthquake

1. The Shakes

In the year 1872, much of the Interior Columbia District—that large portion of the drainage between the Cascades and the Rockies that had been ruled by the British fur trade system for half a century—was still adjusting to a traumatic shift toward American control. A significant number of Plateau tribal bands and leaders had refused to sign treaties with the U.S. in the middle 1850s, and the 1858 wars that followed those controversial agreements were still fresh in everyone’s memory. Walla Walla, the Oregon Trail stop in Washington Territory’s extreme southeast corner, remained the only interior town of any size. Even so, gold strikes on the upper Columbia and middle Fraser continued to attract a flow of fortune hunters, and hopeful farmers bent on scratching out grain and cattle operations were spreading tentatively north across the region.

As the weather began to clamp down that December, Indian agent W. P. Winans began his third year in northeast Washington. Based in the small settlement of Colville, his official goal was to bring some order to the native situation. Winans had six non-treaty Interior Salish tribes to work into the larger community; many of the disputes he tried to mediate involved complaints from tribal families concerning both their own restricted movements and steady encroachment by newcomers on their traditional food gathering areas. Hunger was often mentioned in his agency reports.

In the midst of these chaotic duties, Winans posted a letter describing an event that took place on December 14, 1872, to Walla Walla and civilization as he knew it. Like many letters that traveled through the new Territory, his words soon appeared in a local newspaper.


Winans’s letter, complete with his casual sleigh ride, stands as one of several brief first-hand written accounts of the shake. Another missive from Spokane Bridge—a new settlement just upstream from present-day Spokane—assured friends that four distinct tremors had hurt no one. Reports from Walla Walla, Umatilla, and the Dalles described between two and five heavy shocks around 10:00 p.m. on the same night. Columbia River steamboat captain J.C. Ainsworth, aboard his vessel near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers, noted that the event at Wallula Gap was followed by “…five lighter shocks at intervals of about fifteen minutes, after which a heavy, rumbling sound was heard as distinctly as a heavy peal of thunder.” Ainsworth considered the first shock violent enough to shake buildings and their contents up “pretty lively, yet no damage or injury was sustained by any one, that I am aware of.”

The original tremor must have indeed been pretty lively, because people in towns as far east as Virginia City, Montana, and across the Rocky Mountains in Henry House, Alberta, also felt a succession of mild shocks. Newspapers in the larger coastal cities of Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, and Victoria, British Columbia, described more detailed effects, although their overblown prose often left the exact nature of the disturbance unclear. Several of these reports mentioned a landslide on the Columbia River that had blocked the entire Columbia, creating a dry channel and forming a vast lake. “The Indians on Rock Island [just below the modern town of Wenatchee] say the mountain at that place rolled down and killed three persons.”


W.P. Winans

A brief geographic tour of the area in question

Over the next few weeks and months, new accounts continued to appear. Purported eyewitnesses swore that cabins had been shaken to pieces. Chimneys had twisted and collapsed. Rolling rocks had killed at least three people. Water on the lower Fraser River had jumped its banks. Mount Rainier had let off a smoke plume that blanketed eastern Washington, and children had suffocated from breathing sulfurous fumes. There was a report that “…in the Spokane country the earth opened up and swallowed a number of Indians and their horses.” Many of the wilder stories emanated from the vicinity of Lake Chelan, 40 miles above Wenatchee on the Columbia. These included cracked earth, geysers, waterspouts, rhythmic waves, and sulfur or oil-tainted water near the lake’s outlet. Over the next several years and then decades, various anniversaries of the quake were marked with commemorative coverage that tended to embroider rather than illuminate the truth, so that over time a whole body of conflicting stories passed into local lore. A few geologists were also interested, and a 1956 Canadian report sorted through the tales. Based on apparently solid reports from Fraser River towns including Chilliwack, Hope, Yale, Spence’s Bridge, and Quesnel, the author postulated that the quake’s epicenter had been located just north of the international border, on the west slope of the Cascade Range.

During the 1970s, as part of an attempt to determine the stability of several proposed sites for nuclear power plants, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) commissioned a geologic study of the 1872 earthquake. The lead investigator on the WPPSS report was Howard A. Coombs, a respected geologist whose team did an exemplary job of correlating period newspaper accounts and some tribal stories with modern geology, stratigraphy, and soil science. Coombs’s team weighed the reliability of the sources for all the oral narratives, placing the highest value on their proximity to the most affected areas in place and time, then applied them to the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale of 1931.

The Mercalli Scale, first developed in the late nineteenth century, uses sensory evidence to determine the seismic power of an earthquake on an index of one to twelve. Level Two, for example, describes wakened sleepers and clanking crockery of the sort witnessed in Colville by W.P. Winans. Back in 1872, no motor cars could rock in unison according to the 1931 Scales’s precepts for Level Three, but there were clear statements that the steamer North Pacific, lying in the mud of a south Puget Sound low tide, had rolled at its berth and “creaked in every joint.”

Since the lore of the earthquake radiated across the rigid precepts of the Mercalli Scale, each source had to be vetted on their own merits. Both real damage and general fright begin to appear at Mercalli Level Six, and there were several reports of collapsed cabins and rampant terror at tribal encampments from along the east slope of the Cascades. John McBride, who provided Olympia’s Washington Standard with some of their most vivid such descriptions, was later revealed to be no more than a ruffian scoundrel “who, for pure cussedness, could not be excelled anywhere on the border.”

Although most accounts from west of the Cascade Range related nothing more significant than cracked chimneys, one report that Coombs took seriously involved news from Chilliwack, a British Columbia settlement on the lower Fraser River, that had been printed within a few days of the quake. “Houses commenced to oscillate; the earth rose like waves of the sea; the rivers splashed their banks.” These kinds of motions appear among the criteria for Level Seven on the Mercalli Scale. Several of the difficult-to-verify stories from the vicinity of Lake Chelan, including significant cracks opening in the ground and drastic changes in spring and well flow, match Level Eight.

The Coombs Report, published in 1976, compiled four volumes of information from around the region, then used this site data to generate a map of the greater Pacific Northwest, with estimated Mercalli Scale numbers assigned to each of the sometimes far-flung contributing settlements. While the report debunked many of the second- and third-hand accounts that had appeared in newspapers from the Coast, it left no doubt that a major earthquake had shaken a region (one that included the entire Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the central Columbia Basin) that up to that point had been viewed as geologically stable. In addition, significant aftershocks had been felt across the region for some time afterwards.

Coombs’s team agreed with the earlier Canadian report that the quake’s epicenter had been located on west slope of the Cascades just north of the international border and the upper reaches of Lake Chelan. The central circle drawn around that epicenter, which extended well east across the Cascade’s crest and south past Lake Chelan, rated a Mercalli Level Eight. The levels in the roughly regular circles that rippled away from the epicenter diminished in all directions, like ripples across a pond.

Coombs and his associates estimated that the 1872 earthquake ranged in force somewhere between 7.0 and 7.3 on the Richter scale. They also set the origin of the temblor between twenty-five and forty miles below the surface—still within the outer layer of the earth’s crust, and relatively shallow by the standards of seismologists. Such origins create long, slow shock waves that often leave local buildings intact but can be amplified on unstable ground much farther away. The report also noted that crustal quakes of this depth are often characterized by significant and long-lasting aftershocks, a finding that agreed with almost all the credible eyewitness reports.

The Coombs report was far from the last word on the 1872 quake. A subsequent study, published only three years later, arrived at very different conclusions. These authors postulated a 7.4 magnitude for a deeper event that occurred in the mantle of the earth. They placed the epicenter around Ross Lake, just west of the North Cascade Range crest but south of the Canadian border. Obviously, the wide range of eyewitness accounts coupled with a complete lack of instrumentation made it hard to figure out exactly what had taken place on that cold December night.

2. On the Ground

The raw power of the 1872 earthquake remains clearly visible at Earthquake Point, twenty miles above Wenatchee on the Columbia River’s west bank. According to tribal people living there at the time, a landslide below the point’s massive Ribbon Cliffs had temporarily blocked the great river’s flow. At one family encampment some miles below Earthquake Point, a woman told of walking down to the Columbia to dip out water for cooking on the morning after the quake. Upon arriving at her familiar spot, she was startled to find the entire riverbed dry.

Another story came from Wapato John, a headman of the Chelan/Entiat band who farmed and ran a store upstream from Ribbon Cliffs. He described the river rising fifty feet overnight, flooding his fields and trading post. Before the next day was out, the Columbia broke back through the temporary dam to send a scary pulse of fast water downstream. All the tribal stories were relayed through white settlers of the area, and most included expressions in Chinook jargon, which served as the common language of the time. Watpato John was reported as saying that “a bad Ta-man-na-was,” or spirit, surrounded the whole affair.

The cliffs above Earthquake Point are composed of massive pale gray granites that are written through with much darker ribbons formed by volcanic intrusions. [date this granite and volcanic intrusions on time line?] Viewed from close range, these lines of basalt carry a reddish-brown color that fits both their geologic origin and a Salish creation story about a bad blind dog whose head was broken open by the sun. Searching for its den, the injured dog bled all over the cliffs, leaving behind many ribbons of dried blood.

Even though these gorey intrusions make the sheer Ribbon Cliffs look ripe for a cataclysmic event, recent geological investigations suggest that the river-blocking landslide of 1872 did not calve directly off their face. More likely, the earthquake triggered a release of colluvium, the unsorted rubble of soils, scree, and volcanic ash that had piled up for some thousands of years at the base of the cliffs. According to this hypothesis, a sudden jolt could have sent untold tons of such debris sliding forward like an avalanche to impede the river’s flow. Over a period of hours the Columbia could have bored an opening back through the mix of loose materials, and relentless pressure from an untamed river would have quickly enlarged the initial stream into a torrent that would match Wapato John’s description of a sudden pulse of water. Such an event would not leave many clues behind, but rock and tree ring studies from around the cliffs have revealed a complex history of other slides in the area, as if the running dog had created a host of troubles over time.

North of the Ribbon Cliffs, a massive Pleistocene-era glacier pushed southeast out of the Cascade Range to carve the very long, very deep gouge that today holds Lake Chelan. This glacier’s terminal moraine created a dam to contain the lake, which today drains through the Chelan River’s short, wild outlet run to the Columbia. The size and depth of Lake Chelan seems to connect it to the spine of the entire continent, and occasional extraordinary events have been observed on its surface. One of the most famous involves a “volcanic upheaval” witnessed only twenty minutes after an earthquake of 8.6 magnitude struck Yakutat Bay Alaska in 1899. Such violent sudden splashes or standing waves, known to geologists as “seiches,” are often described as waterspouts or geysers; both were said to have occurred at Lake Chelan after the 1872 quake.

Other native accounts from the near vicinity tell of the earth subsiding up to five feet in one place, and of large cracks opening in the ground down at lake level and up along a nearby hogback ridge. Some of the cracks released water that spurted two or three feet into the air and reeked with sulfurous fumes. One such gusher, which appeared in the middle of a tribal encampment at the lake’s south end, ruined much of their stored winter food. [Wapato Heritage p. 89] The Coombs Report noted that lake bottom sediments near this site lay more than four hundred feet thick. Much of that material had been washed down from the lake’s upper end, where natural copper deposits concentrated sulfide minerals. The report speculated that shifts in that ancient mud combined with hydraulic pressure could have disrupted water patterns of the area, and created small geysers that emitted stinky fumes.

In the 1920s, John Wapato’s son Peter, drawing on his family’s earthquake memories, described a similar outburst below the outlet of Lake Chelan that lasted much longer.

Just upstream from the confluence of the Chelan and Columbia rivers, a series of artesian springs follows the crease between the slope of the glacial moraine and the extensive floodplain that leads down to the placid waters of the dammed Columbia. Initially diverted to irrigate an early orchard, for the past century the steady artesian flow has supported a pair of fish hatcheries.

Known collectively as Beebe Springs, the upwellings today can be traced by a thick brow of Himalayan blackberry that runs above the upper hatchery road for a quarter-mile or more. Upon hearing Peter Wapato’s geyser story, U. S. Geological Survey geologist Ralph Haugerud wondered if the 1872 earthquake, in a smaller version of the action at Ribbon Cliffs, might have dislodged an avalanche of glacial till from the hillside to plug the whole Beebe system. Aftershocks combined with the impediments could have created a geyser that took months to settle back into a quieter and more familiar pattern.

“Imagine a rubber hose filled with water,” explained Haugerud. “Hold one end up in the air. If you shake the hose, your flow increases on the lower end. If you shake it hard enough, it will spurt up like a geyser, and stay that way for a bit before pulsing back down.”

A decade ago, Ralph Haugerud teamed with three fellow geologists to re-evaluate the 1872 quake by rigorously comparing it to a dozen better-documented earthquakes that had occurred both east and west of the Cascade Range in the 20th century. Their 2002 publication added depth and context to previous studies of the event, and weighed in on discrepancies between Coombs’s 1976 report and the 1979 paper. These new refinements concluded that the 1872 quake was probably a shallow crustal event with an intensity magnitude of 6.8, and an epicenter near the south shore of Lake Chelan. In an appendix, the authors also stated that their findings could not represent any kind of final word, because “Analyses of historical earthquakes often depend critically on ambiguous descriptions of earthquake effects,” and pointed to the testimony of shifty characters like John McBride as one way to skew a data set.

3. Gravy

More than a hundred river miles upstream from Beebe Springs, the prominent landmark of Whitestone Rock rises above the Columbia’s south shore between the mouth of the Sanpoil and Spokane Rivers. In 1872 John “Virginia Bill” Covington ran a store in the shadow of Whitestone, much as Wapato John did above the Ribbon Cliffs. Covington, who was married to a Sanpoil woman known as Spillkeen, talked to a reporter in the spring of 1873.

The further Virginia Bill Covington’s account wandered from Whitestone, the more frenetic it became, and a succeeding subhead of the newspaper article described both the appearance of A BOILING LAKE in the nearby vicinity and a NATURAL BRIDGE that somehow formed over the Columbia just north of the Canadian border. Although the truth of such details remains impossible to verify, Howard Coombs and his cohorts did date discontinuities in nearby landforms and confirm that sizeable landslides had occurred around the Whitestone trading post.

In the kind of unsettled environment that existed throughout the Plateau tribal world in 1872, it is not surprising that a landscape-altering earthquake would be seen as a significant spiritual event. The Okanogan–Lakes author Christina Quintasket (Mourning Dove) remarked how although many of her elders clung to their native beliefs during the missionary period that began in the 1840s, the shaking earth persuaded some to embrace Christianity. Even as the aftershocks continued, a frame church was constructed on the site of an original log Jesuit mission just south of Kettle Falls. “During that time my people stayed close to the priests,” Quintasket wrote. “The Black Robes [Jesuits] had no difficulty making lifelong Colvile and Okanogan converts at that time.”

A Jesuit priest named Father Grassi, who worked out of Yakima in the 1870s, described the tremor himself as a sign from God, and in an 1874 letter commented about its effects on San Poil and Nespelim bands along the southern edge of proposed Colville Reservation. In doing so he also described significant aftershocks and landscape features that score surprisingly high on the Mercalli Scale for a place so far removed from the quake’s epicenter.

If by “vices” Father Grassi meant traditional practices, he was correct: many Native American people had their own spiritual response to both the waves of missionaries and the upset of the earthquake and its aftershocks. In 1873, one Columbia Plateau Indian agent compiled a list of no fewer than ten different native prophets or “dreamers” active across the region. The list numbered followers for each prophet ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. Two of these dreamer-prophets, Smohalla from the Wanapum tribe and Skolaskin (also spelled Kolaskin) of the Sanpoil, were said to have predicted the 1872 earthquake.

Working a few decades after the event, anthropologist Verne Raye gathered a host of different versions of Skolaskin’s story. Ray wrote that some weeks before December 14, 1872, Skolaskin had apparently ridden into the camp of a rival Okanagan prophet and declared that “the Manitou is angry with the wickedness of his people...The land is going to shake. Buildings will fall down. People will go out of their heads. You had better tell your people. Warn them as to what is going to happen.”

Skolaskin and his party then departed for home. “All along the river they warned the people of the impending tragedy. They were laughed at by some, but many more took the prophecy seriously. Those who had become followers of Skolaskin began to pray to qwrlantsu’tan to deliver them from destruction.”

After a day of travel, the group camped at the mouth of the Nespelem River. During the night they felt a slight tremor in the earth. As soon as they arrived at Whitestone Rock the following day, “Skolaskin gathered his followers together in the church to pray. Severe quakes occurred that night and throughout the following day. Further tremors were felt at intervals from that time until spring.”

Julia Garry, a Spokane woman, confirmed at least some of the activities. “I was camping at Whitestone, not far from Skolaskin’s camp, a little while after the big earthquake,” she told Ray. “Suddenly one day Skolaskin rushed out of his lodge and called to the people to begin praying and to look out for what was to happen. A little while later another earthquake came, just a small one. More people believed in him after that.” [Ray, “Kolaskin and the Earthquake at Whitestone Rock,” American Anthropologist, New Series, No. 38, 1936 pp. ]

Whether Skolaskin was purposefully capitalizing on these aftershocks or not, for years afterward his influence continued to spread. He ordered a small church built in his home village of Whitestone—one of the places most affected by the earthquake—and held regular services there. In time, Skolaskin’s Whitestone church was dismantled and rebuilt in front of the main offices of the Colville Confederated Tribes at Nespelim, where it stands today as a monument both to his work and to the resonant power of the 1872 earthquake. [images of Skolaskin on horse and church at present location?]

Skolaskin’s story brings an additional thread to the fabric of written historic and scientific versions of the quake. Families that talk to each other, and pass their experiences down through generations, can provide sharp and significant evidence of the earth’s disruption. In the 1950s, Coeur d’Alene Cliff SiJohn heard elders describe how an area around the mouth of the Spokane River sank during a night of violent tremors. When they spoke the Salish word for the place, they would hold their hands out, fingers spread and palms down, then shake and lower them to mimic the effect. “That’s what the word means,” SiJohn said. “All sunken down.” [Cliff SiJohn, personal conversations with the author, July and August 2006]

In the 1970s, Spokane tribal member Sadie Boyd recounted her mother’s version of the story. “Before I was born, and while my mother was pregnant with my older sister, there was an earthquake” Boyd recounted. “There were families camped and living at the flat above the mouth of the Spokane River, and at a place near there. It was in the fall when the earthquake happened.” Sadie Boyd was born on January 27, 1884, so her sense of time matches up well with written records.

Boyd’s mother told her how the ground bubbled violently during the earthquake—not from side to side as Sadie wanted to imagine it, but round and round like boiling water. When Sadie grew up and asked another elder who had been there to describe the earthquake, she heard the same odd turn of phrase: “It was like something boiling.”

Sadie Boyd also remembered the story of a separate seismic event that had taken place long before 1872. That quake brought the same kind of action, but created chaos on a scale that hearkened back to the broken-headed dog running wild at Ribbon Cliffs. “It was awesome as it boiled like a giant pan of boiling gravy. Wave upon wave upon wave, fore and aft. People were running helter skelter, screaming, crying, as the land pulled apart, swallowing them up, swallowing the animals, trees, everything.” [Robert Ruby, Interview with Sadie Boyd, July 2, 1965. Unpublished papers of Robert H. Ruby in the archives of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane WA.

Geologist Ralph Haugerud only had to read Sadie Boyd’s accounts through once before offering an interpretation. “I immediately think of ground liquefaction,” he wrote. “If you shake water-saturated sediments, they disaggregate and pack more closely. That action releases water, along with mud and sand, to boil up to the surface.” [Haugerud, personal correspondance with the author, April 10, 2013] Haugerud directed me to YouTube links of classic liquefaction from recent earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand, and Puget Sound. For anyone who views them, Sadie Boyd’s gravy metaphor bubbles instantly to life. It’s the kind of startling detail that links accurate oral history with living geology.

In early January of 2014, several of Haugerud’s colleagues from the USGS gathered in Spokane to present the results of an airborne magnetic survey that seemed to confirm the presence of previously undescribed faults in the vicinity. Their work came about as a result of a swarm of small shallow earthquakes that had occurred within the city limits in 2001. At that time many residents were shaken out of their sleep, and several described loud noises like thunder in their basements. Seismologists were able to determine that the quakes were triggered only about a half a mile below the surface, and that the very largest of them measured a mild 4.0. on the Richter Scale. Still, local geologists wondered how a terrain with no history of movement, whose visible geology consisted almost solely of thick flows of Miocene basalt, could wake up and stir about so suddenly.

The USGS presentation contained a lot of technical data, beautiful but cryptic maps, and very interesting preliminary ideas. While the geologists emphasized that in terms of hazard assessment they saw no immediate threat to the public, recent advances in magnetic and aerial laser scanning techniques point toward a wealth of new material to be explored. The maps they displayed, in which a familiar lake shape or mountain bump peeked through layers of wildly unfamiliar colors and patterns on the screen, invited a closer look at familiar landscape features all around Spokane. [Richard Blakely, Craig Weaver, Gerry Bozarth: “Geophysical studies reveal potential quake hazard in Spokane area.” USGS News Release, Spokane, January 3, 2014]

As soon as I got home I pulled out a topographical map of the Interior Northwest, and found myself tracing a line due east from Lake Chelan and Beebe Springs. The line rode across the bulging basalt flows of the Waterville Plateau to cut the top end of Grand Coulee near a traditional tribal trail at Barker Canyon. Continuing dead east, my path struck the Columbia River again right at Whitestone Rock. There the Big River dipped south, curling down and up again to rejoin the arrow of the line exactly at the mouth of the Spokane River, where Cliff SiJohn’s elders told him that the ground had sunk away. Then it was easy to follow the smaller river upstream as it wound its way 50 miles or so, east and a little south, to the city of Spokane.

Although I understood that there was no chance of connecting the deep echoing throb that emanated from Lake Chelan in 1872 with those shallow pops and booms in Spokane basements only a decade ago, I also couldn’t stop myself from asking one of the USGS geologists whether he thought there might be a way to talk about them in the same context. “Well,” he said thoughtfully. “They’re on the same Earth.”

He held that for a beat, laughed a little, and then admitted that every tendril of information his cohorts had gathered clearly pointed toward one indisputable fact: this Earth has a lot more to reveal about the deep geology of the Columbia Plateau. [Steve Box, personal conversation, Jan 7, 2014]